The first of Buddhism’s Four Nobel Truths is that “Life is suffering.” Whoa! Harsh! What a downer! As someone who lives with chronic pain, this key premise scared me terribly and kept me from studying Buddhism in a sangha (spiritual community) for many years. I was happy to meditate at home alone thank you very much. After all, didn’t the Buddha reach enlightenment alone under the Bodhi Tree?
Finally, I realized that I could only learn so much from meditating and reading alone and I joined an Insight Meditation center. Early on, I took a series of classes on the Four Nobel Truths. There, my teacher, a young man who is the very embodiment of compassion, phrased the First Nobel Truth this, more palatable, way: “There is suffering.”
Hearing it framed in that manner made all the difference for me.”There is suffering” felt much more matter of fact and less fatalistic than, “Life is suffering.” Who can argue with the fact that there is suffering in this world? Who hasn’t experienced pain — physical, emotional or spiritual?
The Second Nobel Truth is that, “The cause of suffering is craving,” and it’s this Truth that I want to focus on today. The basic idea is that humans are constantly craving. We crave nourishment, financial security, a home, a mate, to be healthy, to be pain free… We believe that obtaining these things will make us happy, and they may, for a while. Then we inevitably crave more and better: more money, a bigger home, a sexier, more attentive mate…
When we’re experiencing the perfect moment, we want (crave) it to last forever. And in so wishing, we are no longer in the moment and perfection passes away.
And, of course, we have a fear of and an aversion to pain, illness and death — our loved ones’ or our own — so we crave for things to be different, to be the exception to the rule, instead of experiencing these things mindfully.
Recently, I realized that the nature of modern suffering has expanded to include individuals and situations that we humans are ill equipped to process, much less handle. In fact, most of us are probably unaware — “unmindful” — of this modern threat to our equanimity.
This threat is brought to us courtesy of the internet and the news.
Much has been written about the difference between online and real-life friends. According to, “…Nathan Jurgenson, a New York-based sociologist and researcher for the messaging platform Snapchat…[c]ontemporary identities and relationships are no more or less authentic in either space. ‘We’re coming to terms with there being just one reality and digital is part of it, not any less real or true,’ Jurgenson said. ‘What you do online and what you do face-to-face are completely interwoven.’ Chayka, Kyle. “Let’s Really Be Friends — a defense of online intimacy.” New Republic, Web. March 2, 2015
Many of my “online friends” are real friends. I have developed genuine relationships with people through social networking sites, we’ve sent each other cards and gifts and even spent time in each others’ homes. Most of the time, our online interactions are light, filled with 40-character quips and cute pictures of puppies and kittens. But “real life” manages to slip through when friends are blue, when their loved ones are ill, when their pets are dying. And that leads to the first “modern suffering” stressor. In a traditional world, our worries are limited to our face-to-face friends, our loved ones and our communities. Sometimes they can feel overwhelming but, for the most part, they’re manageable. Social media increases our “worry pool” exponentially. How many pleas to pray for internet friends’ loved ones can one handle before turning a blind eye to similar requests? And, as compassionate human beings, how do we live with ourselves when we pretend not to see?
The internet also brings local, national and global news to our phones, tablets and computers as it happens. This so called “breaking news” is enticing. It plays right into our craving for immediacy and for “more.” Sadly, breaking news is rarely good. It usually has to do with accidents, natural disasters and atrocities. It is spun and catastrophized to appeal to our fear and our empathy. As I write, countless compassionate Americans, who couldn’t point Syria out on a map, are genuinely distraught about the number of children who are dying in Aleppo. How could they not be with leads like this NY Times article entitled “Why so many children are being killed in Aleppo”: “They cannot play, sleep or attend school. Increasingly, they cannot eat. Injury or illness could be fatal. Many just huddle with their parents in windowless underground shelters — which offer no protection from the powerful bombs that have turned east Aleppo into a kill zone.” Gladstone, Rick, Web. September 27, 2016. Copy like that makes us want to do something. And, since we can’t do anything other than worry, pray and/or send some money to relief organizations, we feel helpless, which, of course, adds to our suffering.
I am determined not to turn this blog into a political forum, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the impact that the recent presidential election had on Americans and the world. For 18 months, the press and pundits, both credentialed and armchair, bombarded televised and internet news with their analysis and opinions. While other presidential elections occurred during the Information Age, none was as contentious and polarizing. As election day came and went, I watched my real life and online friends — and myself — spiral into a deep depression. Now, with every Tweet from the President Elect, those of us who were in the Pantsuit Camp, become mired in our despair, helpless to do anything meaningful but protest — in the streets and online.
And if that’s not modern suffering, I don’t know what is.